It would be easy to let the title of this book put you off it: Diary of a Man in Despair, does not sound as though it’s going to be an entertaining read, but I share the view of Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations that this is an “extraordinary document”, a “unique testament” to the horrors the Nazi dominance in Germany in the 1940s.
I suppose one might ask why anyone would want to read a book like this – it’s not going to “entertaining” in any sense of the word, but my interest is in trying to understand how whole nations and communities can go so completely off the rails that they lost all sense of human values. Anyone who reads books like this must wonder how they themselves would cope if the political systems of our own country changed and a Fascist regime came to power (British readers might want to beware the current anti-immigrant rhetoric!). Reck gives an example of how one could behave, remaining true to oneself despite the immense pressure to conform.
I have collected a few books on A Common Reader which detail the lives of those Germans who opposed Nazi rule, but none is quite as vivid as Friedrich Reck’s diary (which was eventually going to bring an awful punishment on the head of it’s writer). At the end of the book an Afterword by the historian Richard J Evans (author of the magesterial Third Reich trilogy) quotes the extremes Reck had to go to keep this explosive diary from secret, “Night after night I hide this record deep in the woods on my land . . . constantly on watch lest I am observed, constantly changing my hiding place”. Later on he took to burying it in a tin box in a field.
Anyone who has visited Germany will come away impressed by the similarities between our two countries. We Britons find much to admire in Germany but the Germans tend to admire British culture and our way of life also. When Philip Oltermann was 16, his parents told him that his father had accepted a posting to London and now, 17 years later, Philip has written this book, Keeping Up With The Germans – A History of Anglo-German Encounters, a collection of reflections, analyses and random facts about the friendly but often uneasy relationship between our two countries.
Philip did rather well in Britain. While at school he was selected to join an elite group of boys studying A-level in Philosophy. He eventually went up to Oxford University and is now a deputy editor on The Guardian. His book is a very wide-ranging mixture containing chapters which discuss some complex philosophical and linguistic ideas, and other chapters about football, humour and motoring. If you’re prepared for this then it makes a thoughtful and entertaining read which I for one found very interesting.
It would be easy to write this review entirely by quoting some of the more memorable passages from the book. To see British culture through German eyes is not always an experience which makes you feel proud of your country, especially when for example, you read of Philip’s induction into the tradition of the British Sunday lunch.
“One of my father’s new colleagues had invited us for a welcoming meal which she announced as ‘a Sunday roast’ when we stepped into her house. We had barely taken off our jackets when our host – all wavy coiffured hair and buck teeth – hugged us emphatically and tried to kiss me on my cheeks. She had accompanied the words ‘Sunday roast’ with a showy movement of the hands, like a butler lifting a silver dish cover, conveying an impression of ceremony and theatre. A Sunday roast, this hand movement tried to say, was not like any other meal”.